Eric Schwitzgebel »

Picture the world through the eyes of the jerk. The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it’s a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you stow your laptop. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is an idiot to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.

We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild. Imagine the nature documentary voice-over: “Here we see the jerk in his natural environment. Notice how he subtly adjusts his dominance display to the Italian-restaurant situation . . .” And second—well, I don’t want to say what the second reason is quite yet.

As it happens, I do have such a theory. But before we get into it, I should clarify some terminology. The word “jerk” can refer to two different types of person. The older use of “jerk” designates a chump or ignorant fool, though not a morally odious one. When Weird Al Yankovic sang, in 2006, “I sued Fruit of the Loom ’cause when I wear their tightie-whities on my head I look like a jerk” or when, in 1959, Willard Temple wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He could have married the campus queen. . . . Instead the poor jerk fell for a snub-nosed, skinny little broad,” it’s clear it’s the chump they have in mind.

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